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A vaccine against thickened artery walls

Atherosclerosis (thickening of the artery wall) is the most common cause of heart attacks or strokes, and one of the most common causes of death in the western world. People with this condition have to take medicine all their lives, so a vaccine for atherosclerosis would be a breakthrough.

Sectional of a thickened artery wall

Containing the inflammation response

In cases of atherosclerosis the inside of the blood vessel becomes clogged with cholesterol from the blood, caused by an excess of cholesterol in the blood. At the place where the blockage develops, white blood cells force their way into the wall of the blood vessel and cause inflammation, so in a way atherosclerosis is an exaggerated defensive reaction against the body’s own tissue. Johan Kuiper, Professor of Therapeutic Immunomodulation, has been awarded a large European grant for a project that aims to use a vaccine to contain or even prevent the inflammation response. A vaccine against infection by a bacterium or virus is directed at making the immune system more alert and aims to prepare for a strong defensive reaction. That happens by stimulating the production of immune cells of a certain type (CD8+ T-cells) that attack that one specific intruder.

However, vaccination can also lead to a situation where the immune system does not react to something that would normally cause an inflammation response. Kuiper’s vaccine stimulates the production of another kind of immune cells (CD4+ T-cells) that have a reduced effect on inflammations. These T-cells recognise the body’s own proteins in the wall of the blood vessel and reduce the auto-immune reaction to these proteins.

Taking pills for life could be a thing of the past

In the most favourable case, a vaccine against atherosclerosis would only have to be administered a few times, after which the body has long-term protection. That is a much more positive outlook than a life of taking medicine to keep the cholesterol content of the blood down – something that more than a million Dutch people do at the moment.

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